The Texas women shaping the sound and image of outlaw country

“They’ve kind of forced change much in the way that those outlaws of the seventies did.”

By Sean Saldana & Shelly BrisbinSeptember 8, 2023 3:14 pm, ,

First emerging in the 1970s, the outlaw country genre is often associated with names like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. But outlaw country has also seen large contributions from female artists, and that’s especially true of late.

In a recent piece for Texas Highways, Natalie Weiner takes a look at the impact female artists have had in this genre dominated by men. She joined the Texas Standard to talk about it. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You know, I was thinking about who I would count in that sort of outlaw country realm, and I realize I’m not sure that there’s a good definition that everyone would agree on. How do you define outlaw country?

Natalie Weiner: I mean, I think obviously we associate it so much with the names that you just mentioned. The premise of this story and this exploration was more on how these women who make country music of all different varieties, you know, ranging from stuff that’s on country radio to what’s called like “Americana.” They all sort of channel that outlaw spirit. You know what I mean? Like, they’re pushing the boundaries and evolving those genres.

And the truth is, in Texas music, you could make the argument that someone who wasn’t even a performer had an enormous impact here – Cindy Walker. If you don’t know the name “Cindy Walker,” you’ve got to look it up. But I want to get back to this larger premise that perhaps women in outlaw country may be having something of a moment now. 

Yes, definitely. I think specifically women country artists from Texas have been making more changes to country music in the past ten and 20 years than anyone else. You know, it’s really women from Texas who have pushed country in all kinds of directions politically, esthetically, otherwise. You know, they’ve kind of forced change much in the way that those outlaws of the seventies did.

So let’s talk some names. Who would you cite as an example?

I mean, it starts with the Chicks.

The Chicks, we have had to admit, were pretty mainstream and some might be surprised that you consider them outlaws. So this maybe speaks to the idea of the performer as someone pushing back against against the man, against authority.

Yeah, I mean, I think because they were successful, you know, their innovations from a musical standpoint aren’t necessarily focused on as much. But they did really sort of bring a very Texas sound to country radio that hadn’t been there before.

You know, I spoke with Lloyd Maines for this story, who’s Natalie Maines’ father and also an extremely accomplished Texas musician in his own right. And he talked to me about how really there wasn’t as much fiddle on country radio in that moment, you know, in that kind of mid-nineties time before the Chicks brought it back in a way.

You also talk with Amanda Shires for this story – originally from Lubbock. And I understand she told you that people don’t really consider the term “outlaw” for women, but it doesn’t feel gendered. You’re outside the law.

With Amanda, again, you’re kind of talking about what I mentioned with the Chicks. Her music really pushes the boundaries of country today. You know, it’s very eclectic, very experimental. But she’s certainly grounded in the Texas country tradition.

At the same time, she really has a specific progressive political perspective. I mean, she’s making songs about abortion rights, you know, speaking openly about her ectopic pregnancy and how getting treatment really sort of made her so much more aware of how necessary those rights are.

»RELATED: Amanda Shires reflects on working with Bobbie Nelson, a longtime idol, for new album ‘Loving You’

Talking about more contemporary women in outlaw country, who else would you put on your short list?

Maren Morris. You know, again, we’re talking about a pop artist here, you know, pop country artist. But it’s really the way that she’s used her platform to speak out for trans rights, about Black Lives Matter. You know, she’s really not afraid to sort of take on the Nashville status quo.

I know that a lot of artists, generally speaking, aren’t too fond of labels. What were you hearing from some of these artists about that term “outlaw country”?

I think a lot of them were really ready to embrace the term “outlaw.” You know, just without the “country.” Like the meaning of the term – sort of being an outsider, pushing against norms, you know, challenging the status quo. I mean, whenever I brought up the Chicks, every person I talked to was like, “they are outlaws.” You know, they challenged the norms and suffered the consequences.

Other than that impulse to push back against the status quo, is there anything that you’ve spotted that sort of ties a lot of these more modern outlaw artists together?

I mean, I think all of these women that I wrote about in the story are so deeply rooted in the Texas country tradition in a way that people may not even recognize.

Amanda Shires was opening for Billie Joe Shaver. Kacey Musgraves had an early run in with Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Maren Morris got a cosign when she was just 13 from Gary P. Nunn. It’s like they all – even the ones who have moved to Nashville, who have had more success on the radio – they have the DNA, the bona fides of any Texas artist.

What about the state of country music today? I know that there seems to be sort of a growing friction. It’s always been there, but it seems to be growing right now between this sort of push for more authenticity in the music as opposed to the sort of corporatist Nashville sound, you know what I mean?

Yeah, that tension has really been there for a long time. It’s like ebbed and flowed. And, you know, the outlaws were an initial reaction. You know, what’s interesting right now to me is that country as a genre is just so huge right now. It’s just all sides of the coin are really growing. And it’s just kind of an interesting time to be observing the music.

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